Cannabis use in youth is associated with limited alterations in brain structure

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019 Jul;44(8):1362-1369. doi: 10.1038/s41386-019-0347-2. Epub 2019 Feb 19.


Frequent cannabis use during adolescence has been associated with alterations in brain structure. However, studies have featured relatively inconsistent results, predominantly from small samples, and few studies have examined less frequent users to shed light on potential brain structure differences across levels of cannabis use. In this study, high-resolution T1-weighted MRIs were obtained from 781 youth aged 14-22 years who were studied as part of the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort. This sample included 147 cannabis users (109 occasional [≤1-2 times per week] and 38 frequent [≥3 times per week] users) and 634 cannabis non-users. Several structural neuroimaging measures were examined in whole brain analyses, including gray and white matter volumes, cortical thickness, and gray matter density. Established procedures for stringent quality control were conducted, and two automated neuroimaging software processing packages were used to ensure robustness of results. There were no significant differences by cannabis group in global or regional brain volumes, cortical thickness, or gray matter density, and no significant group by age interactions were found. Follow-up analyses indicated that values of structural neuroimaging measures by cannabis group were similar across regions, and any differences among groups were likely of a small magnitude. In sum, structural brain metrics were largely similar among adolescent and young adult cannabis users and non-users. Our data converge with prior large-scale studies suggesting small or limited associations between cannabis use and structural brain measures in youth. Detailed studies of vulnerability to structural brain alterations and longitudinal studies examining long-term risk are clearly indicated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Marijuana Smoking / pathology*
  • Neuroimaging
  • White Matter / pathology*
  • Young Adult